This is the third in a series of reflections based on Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety by Henri Nouwen
If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross daily and follow me. Luke 9:23
Come unto me all that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28
“The opposite of a fact is falsehood,” observed the physicist Niels Bohr, “but the opposite of one profound truth is another profound truth.” So it is with the Christian faith, symbolized by the cross. To take up our cross daily is to acknowledge and accept suffering. Yet in doing so, we can feel our burden lifted, not because suffering is taken from us, but because it’s somehow connected to God’s suffering with and for us.
Henri Nouwen writes:Look at the man who is pierced and broken and you see the love of God radiating out to you. . . Everytime you look at your struggles, your pain, and your anguish as the burden you have to bear, see your struggles as being struggled with right there on the cross by the Son of God. Your struggle becomes a light burden because it is the burden of God and God has suffered for us.
Our natural inclination is to resist rather than accept suffering. The resistance creates suffering of its own, what theologian Ann Ulanov describes as a false cross, with pain that goes nowhere. Whenever we’re confronted with evidence that something about us or our world is amiss, our minds will do almost anything to keep difficult truth at bay. Nouwen observes that we are far more willing to carry the crosses that don’t belong to us.
God can only help us carry the burdens that we accept as our own. And while our tendency is to focus on the biggest problems, Nouwen suggests that we start small. “There is always something that is a little hard,” he writes. “There is always some pain that we walk right over and don’t take seriously. That pain is our cross.” It is admittedly a small cross in the larger scheme of life, but there’s nothing to be gained by pretending it doesn’t exist.
The practice of accepting smaller struggles helps us to face larger ones with less fear. For we become more at home in ourselves, and we learn not to run away from what hurts. “Take your worries,” Nouwen urges, “and convert them into prayer.”
Take your fear and connect it with God’s fear. Take your depression and see it in the presence of God’s dying on the cross. Bring it into the Presence who has suffered all and lived it all. You will discover that in the presence of Jesus you can live beyond pain and joy, sadness and gladness.
There is a grace that comes when we accept what we cannot change and invite God to help us take up our cross. What we experience is love–God’s unconditional and abiding love for us. Knowing that we are loved helps us to grow in our capacity to share in Christ’s suffering with and for others.
Remember that it was love that compelled Jesus to take up his cross. It didn’t take away his suffering but helped him to bear it. So, too, when we love; we can go to very difficult places. It’s not that we don’t feel the pain, but our focus is on those we love. In love we can carry even the heaviest of burdens and find rest.